Thursday, December 2, 2010

Godfathers and Broomsticks

In one of “The Godfather’s” iconic scenes, Don Vito Corleone tells his hot-headed and doomed son Sonny to never let anyone outside the family know what he’s thinking. Imagine Don Corleone’s panic if he one day found out that someone could actually read his mind, and you’ll have some idea of how the diplomats at the State Department must be feeling today, when virtually every Tom, Dick and Harry is able to read an unadulterated chunk of the world’s only superpower’s (and its allies’) innermost hopes and fears.

The implication made by the above comparison is not that diplomats are criminals, or that statecraft is criminality (although one prominent scholar of International Relations is known to have compared the early modern states to war-waging rackets). It is that the anarchic world is dangerous and unpredictable, a web of interconnected causalities that go beyond the control of one single power, with mayhem, war and death an always-present possibility. You poke that web, and kick that hornets’ nest at your own risk. The problem with Assange is not his intent – it lies in the potential unintended consequences that may flow from his actions.

This goes far beyond the death of an individual informant because of specific information found within these leaks. In many of the world’s regions – East Asia, the Middle East, the former Soviet Union – stability hangs by a thin thread. Peace negotiations are often conditioned by the necessity to keep ongoing bartering secret; they would otherwise remain at the mercy of radicals opposing even the slightest compromise, leaving moderate governments unable to sell solutions even before they have been negotiated. The absence of war also often hangs on the very discretion and deceit Assange rather grandiosely aims to abolish – on elements of inducement and deterrence whose effectiveness often hangs on the poker element within the global chess game: bluff.

Wikileaks has become the world’s ordinary citizens’ mind-reading machine. To some, it is a welcome way of humbling the powerful through acute embarrassment, one heaven-sent element of the technological revolution that has made the world a better and freer place by undermining the power of not just any state, but the world’s hegemonic superpower. To others, it is one of the Internet’s dangerous excesses, one that puts the very survival of the art of statecraft in danger: steering the ship of state in a perilous, anarchic world, where Don Corleone’s advice could be of regular use, requires an element of ‘discretion’. Diplomacy, traditionally understood, cannot function without it – as the inter-war idealists learned – much to their disappointment - decades ago.

Assange has taken on a huge moral responsibility – some would say carried out an act of folly – by stirring that which is intensely unpredictable. We often complain of the bungling ineffectiveness of statespeople; the structures they are confronted with are hardly manipulable and present them with surprise after surprise, often giving them the flair of sorcerer’s apprentices. Wikileaks adding to the complexity and risk by creating an information free-for-all is not going to prevent that sorcerer’s apprentice from performing his ill-fated tricks; it’ll just multiply the number of broomsticks that spring from them, without there being a master-sorcerer to put them back in place.

But nevertheless, it is difficult to see how Wikileaks could be legally faulted for this release of information without endangering that central value of Western liberal democracy - freedom of speech. Assange is not a US citizen – he has not committed an act of treason, unlike the person directly responsible for leaking these documents. Even with a US passport, however, as the ACLU has pointed out, his first-amendment rights as a third-party editor/journalist would remain beyond question. For all the dangers outlined above, the perils inherent to limiting a cornerstone of Western liberal democracy would be far greater. Freedom of speech is always liable to create complications - think of the Danish cartoons saga, or the Salman Rushdie episode - but it is up to the diplomats of Western democratic states to adapt to that fact, rather than abuse state power to repress or curtail a fundamental civil right. This happens to be one of the curses of not working for a dictatorship.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Endgame in Iran?

And so, the Middle East is nearing a strategic crossroads. Within the next eighteen months or so, the decisions taken by different actors will affect issues far beyond the area itself. And time is running out for such decisions. Last year’s discovery of a covert enrichment plant near Qum is probably only the tip of the iceberg; significantly, the IAEA recently openly accused Tehran of developing nuclear weapons, for the first time in its dealings with Iran. Many experts now estimate that the country is at most 1-2 years away from acquiring a functioning nuclear device. And, judging from the regime’s increasingly defiant tone, it has no intention whatsoever to depart from its stated policy of becoming a ‘nuclear nation’ – one that has mastered a sufficient share of civilian nuclear technology to put nuclear weapons well within its grasp.

As time runs out, and the Obama administration definitively gives up on its short-lived attempt at dialogue with Tehran, attention will again shift to the United Nations Security Council, starting with renewed Western attempts to impose sanctions on the Iranian regime in coming weeks and months. Proposals on the table include various restrictions on institutions and persons connected with the regime, and in particular, its core support base in the Revolutionary Guard. But significantly, recent statements have been shifting towards a whole-scale embargo on Iran’s oil industry – blocking Iranian imports of refined fuels (which it cannot produce itself) and technical supplies, and perhaps also blocking oil exports from Iran – with other producers making up for the shortfall.

A two-fold question arises, however. Firstly, whether such sanctions would be approved by all veto-wielding UNSC members – especially Russia and China. And, secondly, whether such sanctions would at all work. The historical evidence is stacked against both these aforementioned possibilities. Russia and China have a long track record of being reluctant in imposing sanctions on regimes deemed ‘rogue’ by the United States and the West. Both also have serious misgivings about the effectiveness of sanctions in general, and in Iran’s particular case – having described them as ‘counterproductive’ on numerous occasions. While no-one – including Moscow and Beijing – would be interested in the serious damage a nuclear Iran could cause to regional stability and the NPT, both these great powers do have interests in Iran that would be affected directly by a UNSC decision to that effect. Russia is a major trading partner; China has invested heavily in Iran’s oil industry in recent years.

Any imposition of sanctions would therefore involve considerable horse-trading, and, probable linkages with other issues that affect great power relations today – with Moscow and Beijing trying to extract Western concessions in matters not necessarily connected to Iran in return for cutting themselves in the flesh. This does not exclude the possibility of sanctions being ultimately pushed through at the right price. Russia’s position, in particular, has begun to shift in recent weeks, with the foreign ministry expressing ‘alarm’ at the prospect of a nuclear Iran, and Russian defence contractors delaying the delivery of the state-of-the-art S-300 anti-aircraft missile system to the Islamic Republic, ostensibly for ‘technical reasons’. Still, Moscow has made tough noises in the past, only to break with its Western counterparts – and China is maintaining its traditional line emphasising the importance of a negotiated settlement.

But even if tough sanctions came into force, their effect would be highly ambiguous: the historical track record of sanctions (be they of the smart or, if you will, ‘dumb’ variety) is highly dubious. Even in cases around the world where they have had the time to affect elites, economies and societies, they have usually not achieved their desired result in terms of changing regime behaviour. The luxury of time is certainly absent in the case of Iran, and the kind of sanctions that are currently being advocated might end up accelerating rather than stopping its nuclear programme. Past and current embargoes on dual-use technology may hamper Iran’s nuclear quest from the supply side – but, ultimately, its drivers on the demand side remain unaddressed: nuclear weapons, once acquired, are a watertight guarantee of regime security from external threat. This is, and will remain the primary driver of Iran’s nuclear ambitions in the foreseeable future, sanctions or no sanctions.

Some have clung on to the idea that an oil embargo would bring about the current regime’s downfall. Certainly, a whole-scale boycott of Iranian petroleum products would hurt Iran’s oil-dependent economy in an unprecedented way, undermining Iran’s ability to provide for its population. This line of thinking, however, makes three highly uncertain assumptions. Firstly, regime change would be dependent on the regime losing control; instead, an embargo may very well give its hardliners carte blanche for even bloodier repression than has been seen up to now in the name of ‘national security’. Secondly, the assumption is also that Iran would sit still and take such a development quietly. The odds are, however, of a response; there is certainly no lack of opportunities in that sense – Hamas and Hezbollah come to mind, but Iraq, Afghanistan and Hormuz are also definite possibilities should the regime be pressed into a corner.

The third assumption is that the regime would fall before it actually managed to obtain ‘the bomb’. But if anything, an oil embargo might increase the demand-side factor in Tehran’s nuclear quest - and North Korea has clearly shown how the dynamics of inter-state interaction change before and after nuclearisation. Before it, regime destabilisation remains an option; after it, it becomes a folly. Among the “international community’s” greatest contemporary nightmares are those of a destabilised North Korea and Pakistan. Iran probably knows a destabilised nuclear Iran would potentially strike equal fear into Western policymakers’ hearts, probably more so than a stable nuclear Iran - all the more reason to obtain the bomb quickly, for once you cross the nuclear threshold, the kinds of sanctions that actually engender regime change become irrational, providing ample opportunity for brinkmanship.

If one assumes sanctions to be either unattainable or ineffective, the choice becomes one between the two evils of nuclear deterrence and military action – and it is not a straightforward one to make. The views of nuclear deterrence as a regional stabiliser are controversial at best; they also come at the price of either abandoning the NPT to its fate as nukes proliferate freely in the region, or of the United States extending its nuclear umbrella, not to mention the incomparable consequences of potential deterrence failure. The military option, on the other hand, would carry with it the certainty of regional destabilisation, probably with global repercussions, and great uncertainty in terms of its chances for success. In the absence of good intelligence (a rare commodity indeed), military strikes would at best delay Iran’s nuclear capability.

But this is exactly what might make the military option a more rational (or less irrational) choice in combination with sanctions. If embargoes are perceived to take long time to work, a hit on Iran’s nuclear facilities might be seen as extending the possibility for sanctions to work, even if it only ends up delaying its nuclearisation. Considering the fact that Israel, as a ‘free agent’ might actually be both able and willing to carry out such strikes, it becomes clear to what extent this is a situation fraught with danger. And in view of all the certainties and potentialities involved, it seems the next few years will be undesirably interesting for all.

[This article is also due to be published in the upcoming issue of The Majalla]

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

On 8 March, throw away that red apple....

At its inception, the Soviet empire included some of the most patriarchal societies on the Eurasian landmass – even by the already patriarchal standards of 1917. True to their Marxist teachings – which saw the patriarchal family as a microcosm of bourgeois oppression – the early Bolsheviks set upon many of the Central Asian and Caucasian traditions that had kept women in Tbilisi, Tashkent, Baku in bondage for centuries. The veil was torn up. Women received equal rights of divorce. Legally at least, they received at the very least the same level of control over mind and body that this totalitarian system allowed their male counterparts. They could opt for higher education, indeed, they were encouraged to. And abortions were legalized.

The picture was not unequivocally rosy throughout the history of the Soviet Union. Some of Stalin’s policies were particularly retrograde, both state and party remained bastions of male dominance throughout Soviet history, and, in the later Soviet period, many of the great ambitions of the early Bolsheviks became mired in the self-congratulatory stagnation of Brezhnevism. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that, in the Caucasus and Central Asia at least, seventy years of communist rule drastically transformed the power relationships between men and women on a very fundamental level. Where an illiterate Central Asian girl born at the beginning of the century could at pin her hopes for a not-too-bright future on her parents’ choice of a not-too-old and -gruff husband, women at the end of the Soviet experiment could fully expect to become part of their republic’s workforce and live a life of their choosing (again, within the confines of ‘Really Existing Socialism’). And while local patriarchal traditions did stay alive, at least it was official policy to discourage some of their more sinister utterances.

The fall of the Soviet Union was a disaster for gender equality throughout the collapsed empire – but especially in these above-mentioned hyper-patriarchal societies in the Caucasus and Central Asia. With the economic collapse, many women lost their ability to survive independently outside of marriage if they so chose to; others had the pressure of being the sole breadwinners for their families added to their household chores, which they had always been expected to perform even in Soviet times (attesting to the limits of the Soviet gender experiment). But, perhaps more importantly, with the revival of nationalist, old, forgotten and atavistic patriarchal traditions were embraced with gusto by the new authorities throughout the FSU. With official Marxism gone, nothing could counter-balance the revival of male chauvinism – that ever-present companion of bigoted nationalism - in places like Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan.

The cult of virginity returned, with a vengeance, as confirmed by sociological surveys throughout the Caucasian republics, where a solid majority of men would not marry a woman who has already ‘done it’ with another man [the opposite does, of course, not apply, for ‘boys will be boys’.]; such attitudes were, naturally, actively promoted by the local religious establishments, with many Georgian and Armenian priests and Azeri mullahs busily pontificating on the virtues of matrimony and the weaknesses of the ‘fair sex’. Those same surveys confirm a large majority in these republics believe women to be less intelligent than men, and therefore under the obligation to be obedient to their husbands. Domestic violence, a survey by Amnesty International tells us, is rife, with a quarter of women falling victim to it in Armenia. Girls born in Yerevan, Baku and Tbilisi today are expected to a far greater extent than before to be good housewives above all – the pressures to marry –and forget about a career- are on as soon as they turn eighteen. You go to university to find a husband: the clock has been well and truly turned back by a few decades.

The reappearance of ‘traditions’ has also meant a sudden return to grace of a supposedly ancient, but probably reconstructed – and certainly despicable – Armenian usage: that of the ‘Red Apples’. In short, on the morning after her first wedding night, the groom’s family is supposed to deliver a basked of red apples to the bride’s relatives – as a confirmation of their newlywed’s virginity. While the custom is certainly not ubiquitous (some Armenians would still take such a gesture as a rather vulgar insult) it has certainly seen a revival – as have, not surprisingly, hymen-repair operations throughout the region, where a few remote villages even continue the even more demeaning practice of hanging the bloodied bed-sheets out on public display during the morning after – just in case anyone missed the point made by the apples themselves. In an atmosphere of national chauvinism, challenges to this kind of atavism are few and far between; the few Armenian women who protested against the ‘red apple’ on international women’s day, in March 2009, were ridiculed by bystanders who saw them as eccentric threats to the ‘grandfatherly traditions’ (‘papakan adatner’ in Armenian) of the country, and, for good measure, compared them to drug addicts.

What’s more, international women’s day itself, instead of being what it was intended to – a celebration of or an impetus to emancipation, depending on what side of the women’s-lib divide your country is one – is distorted in all societies of the region into an affirmation of women’s subordinate position. ‘Sois belle et tais-toi’ – be pretty and keep quiet – could just as well be the motto of the day. Instead of concentrating on the numerous problems women face, the dominant themes are those of ‘female beauty’ and ‘motherhood’ – in fact, for a while in the 1990s, the Armenian government had abolished the observance of International Women’s Day in favour of a reconstructed ‘day of beauty and motherhood’ [sic], in April. While the sight of men buying flowers for their female counterparts is certainly not a disagreeable one at first sight, in this region, it serves to camouflage the inferior position of the female sex, where ‘manhood’ (‘tghamartkutyun’) still implies the dependence of women on male protection and tutelage. Independent women who make choices that fall outside these norms – do not marry, don’t have children, or simply don’t give up their career for God, husband and family – are seen as bad mothers, hysterics, weirdos, just as in the olden days in Europe.

The point of 8 March is to put an end to these distortions, which keep half of these societies’ populations – with all their ability and talent - in a social corset. It is ultimately up to Armenian, Georgian and Azeri women to free themselves from it – and regain the rights they enjoyed before their republics decided to go back a few decades, and more. Because, in the end, international women’s day has nothing to do with either beauty or motherhood – and everything with liberty and equality.